Edward O. Wilson Reflects On Insect Societies The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies peers into the world of ants and other social insects. Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson and co-author Bert Hölldobler, a biologist at Arizona State University, discuss the book.
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Edward O. Wilson Reflects On Insect Societies

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Edward O. Wilson Reflects On Insect Societies

Edward O. Wilson Reflects On Insect Societies

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You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, they look inside the intriguing lives of social insects like ants and bees. In 1991, my next guest won the Pulitzer Prize for their joint effort a book called, "The Ants." He gave us enough close look at this cooperative social creatures as familiar as a picnic lunch or as foreign as the deepest darkest jungle, and it laid out the scientific thinking for how these creatures were shaped by natural selection and evolution. Well now, the prize-winning duo is back with the new book, "The Superorganism." It picks up where the ants left off and it includes other social insects wasps, termites, honeybees.

Joining me to talk about it are my guest, Edward O. Wilson, better known as E.O. Wilson, co-author of "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies." He is the Pellegrino University research professor emeritus at Harvard. And he's in our studio in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

Dr. EDWARD O. WILSON (Co-Author, "The Superorganism; Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University"): Thank you.

FLATOW: Good to have you. Also with us is his co-author Dr. Bert Holldobler. He is co-author of "The Superorganism." He is the founding - he is a foundation professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. He's in our studio. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Holldobler.

Mr. BERT HOLLDOBLER (Co-Author, "The Superorganism"; Foundation Professor, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona): Well, glad to be here.

FLATOW: I can't - I have to ask you about that you sat to the last conversation. You listened about people's activities. Any of that surprise you with comparison to ants or bees or anything?

Dr. WILSON: I intuitively felt that was a reasonable result, and if you try to extend it to ants and of course with some colonies having millions of workers and there all close together, we must have some of the happiest creatures on earth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And they show it. Let's talk about what is a super organism? How do you define that?

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: It's not easy defining it in a short sentence, but let me try. If you have a group of organisms which live together, and they are so tightly organized and united that they develop collectively traits which are similar to traits of a ordinary organism. We can call that group super organisms. And there are not many examples in the animal world which we can really call a superorganisms but the (unintelligible) social insects are truly social insects are such examples. And this is a topic of the book.

We show how during evolution a time from more primitive new social systems which saw lots of friction within the society and evolution going on within the society. They finally reach the state - evolutionary state of the ultimate super organism which is for us, for example, Leafcutter ants or many of the other highly organized insect societies.

FLATO: Dr. Wilson, why is the leafcutter the ultimate?

Dr. WILSON: Well, Bert and I designated that as the panicle or gold medal winner so to speak along with another group of organisms that we both have worked upon or worked on, the weaver ants of Africa and Asia. And the reason why we say it the ultimate is the enormous complexity of the caste system. The physical caste systems which in the case of the leafcutters range all the way from all tiny ants up to giant soldiers and even more gigantic queens forming colonies of up to three million or more organized by a large number of chemical signals back and forth, faces and smell. That allows these creatures to not only live a very complicated life but build a very complicated and once again gigantic nest. And also, to make their living by agriculture, by taking bits of leaves and other fresh vegetable matter, processing it in a complex way, and then raising fungus, a symbiotic fungus found only with them on it. And that's how they make their living, and there are enormously successful.

FLATOW: And when you both refer to a superorganism, you're saying as you did point out that it's the whole colony of could be millions of ants. They're acting like one individual higher - let's say primate or something like that - they all have different functions, but they're all specialized by different workers.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, What we really have to take into account is that you have these remarkable divisions of labor.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: We have in the middle a gigantic queen, or as we call it, a reproductive unit.

FLATOW: I think she's really busy.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: She's very busy laying eggs.


Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Thousands sometimes in a day. And you know such a leafcutter ant queen lives about 10 to 20 years and produces in her lifetime 250 million offspring.

FLATOW: When did she come up for air?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, she never does. Yeah, it's a good question because she lives deep down several meters deep down in the soil. And they also this gigantic fungus which produces a lot of oxygen CO two or this carbon dioxide. But these ants as I'd pointed out built fantastic nests with an air conditioning system, with a ventilation system to get oxygen out and get fresh air in. So the queen is always taken care of with this ventilation. But the queen mates only once in her life at the beginning then she gets the - she mates with five, six males stores the sperm in the sperm pocket so the ants invented the sperm bank long before we humans were on this planet.

And as an ant male you die after you mated. You have a short age - as Ed always call it, they are the flying sperm missiles. But as an ant male you can become father even 20 years after you died because the queen has the sperm with her pocket, and she can keep these sperms alive down in tropical heat for up to 20 years. Now, you just think about what we do to keep our sperm alive.

FLATOW: We freeze it.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: We have - freeze it. Liquid nitrogen and all this techniques. You know, it's a great puzzle how this insects do it. If we ever find out maybe we can become rich.

FLATOW: Do you think we can figure that out, how they do it?

Dr. WILSON: Well, I'm not sure whether we want to go that direction because that was a characteristic things about ants is that all of the individuals, all of the working individuals, not including the lay-about males who were kept around and disposed of after a short life. But all of the individuals are female, and so do we want to go in that direction?

FLATOW: I get your point. You're voting against that.

Dr. WILSON: I'm a feminist, but I called that liberalism run amuck. The point is that - I mean, in theory if we were able to developed a technology and try to answer your question Ira, we are then would be able to rather easily store one man's sperm. And in theory, over let's say 20 years, 30 years after - including after he died be able to create a population of about the size of New York.

FLATOW: Talking with Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson, author of "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies." Now, when we talk about evolution, where is evolution occurring? Is it occurring in the individual ants then or is the whole colony evolving as a super organism?

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Both, both. We speak, Ed and I, we - what should I say? We advertise the multilevel selection theory. So that selection targets different phenotypes, appearances. Of course, the one basic phenotype is the individual. It's not gene. It's the individual. The individual carries the genes. And the next level is the group, the tightly knit group, the social insect society. It's a phenotype. The more that it becomes this ultimate super organism, the more they develop colony traits which are evaluated a selection. Those which have collective traits which are better adapted to the environmental condition will be favored and of course, they have (unintelligible). These genes will spread and those which have less well adapted colony traits will not be favored. The ultimate unit of evolution, it's always a gene. But the target of selection is - is it the individual, maybe it's a kin group I would believe it's the kin group, too - and the group, the insect society.

FLATOW: Is it possible for the whole - to find a dead-end then, with some species of ants? They died out because they did not evolve successfully?

Dr. WILSON: You know, this is one of the mysteries of social evolution, that in a group like the ants, which have been around for perhaps 150 million years - think about that - we've been around for maybe - well, as humans, as identifiable humans - several million years, and in that great span of time, the ants have proliferated into - well, we know of 14, 000 species now and ther're probably twice that number out there - into an array of social organizations that range all the way from just barely eusocial - you know, small colonies, primitive behavior - all the way up to the giant superorganisms of the leafcutter ants and these others. So, we have yet to really work out - and it may take years - as to - as a solution to that dilemma, which is, why haven't they all just gone right to super - a super- superorganism level?

FLATOW: Interesting. 1-800-989-8255, talking about the new book "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies." Let's go to Dan in St. Louis. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Oh, hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAN: Yeah, great show. I was wondering if your guests had had a notion or a model of whether eusocialism, if that's the proper word, had arisen independently, you know, in these numerous ant species and bee species, or if it arose in an ancestor and, you know, was either lost in, you know, the non-eusocial groups? And also, if I could just maybe expand on that just a little bit - is eusocialism or the superorganism notion - do you have an idea of whether it's a self-organizing, say, like a fern, you know, where one small pattern just is repeated and repeated and you end up with what looks like a complicated pattern or is it something more like where, you know, you need outside help to accomplish the level of complexity, like in gene or in protein folding where you actually need folding - other helper proteins.

FLATOW: Let me get an answer to this.

Dr. WILSON: OK, quick answer starting from the rear and going forward. Yes, it's self-organization. That's the one thing we've been able to establish pretty thoroughly. It's more like a plant, as you say, growing. The cells organize into tissues themselves. They don't have to have some kind of outside influence. Then, learning the origins of - let's use the word eusociality, shall we? It's true, you said, socialism - I know you were creating a word there - it is true that socialism is perfected by the ants, in one sense of the word. And we like to say that ants prove that socialism works. Marx was right, but he just had the wrong species.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WILSON: However, on the question often this has occurred, remarkably few times in the long history of life. It's possible that the superorganism, as it is broadly defined, the ants, originated only once about 150 million years ago. And I think it's apparent that the origin of superorganisms, as Bert Holldobler has defined it for us, has occurred of only about two dozen times that we know of. It's very rare, it's a very difficult level to achieve and - but when it is achieved, as for example, in the ants or the termites, then it results in enormous success. A very small number of species come to dominate a large part of the environment.

FLATOW: Talking with Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson, authors of "The Superorganism" on Talk of the Nation, Science Friday from NPR News. Anything - I mean, you've both been at this so long. Does anything surprise you anymore?

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, we experience all the time, new surprises. I tell you, when you compare this one chapter, just looking at the so-called primitive social systems. When we wrote "The Ants," nothing was known about that. It's all new and we got incredible surprises. For example, we looked at some of these primitive or ancestral eusocial system in ants and we found that about 80 percent of all individuals are mated, you know? So, the so-called workers can replace a queen and can reproduce. This is - we haven't really known about their revolutions which take place - two revolutions taking - as soon as the reproductive individuals wane in their reproductivity, in their fertility, others try to displace them by fighting, by ritualized fighting. It's all new.

And you know, when you come to the self-organization, I just have to say, one additional word. Several organizations have worked. It doesn't explain very much. It's very good to have a term, but we like to understand which cascades of behavioral acts produce these incredible structures of these nests, for example. This is a very similar questions in how the brain is organized. We like to understand how the interactions of millions and billions of neurons lead to these structures which produces emergent ability, highly creative abilities. So, I think, here's the next frontier to understand. We, working on the social insects, ask very similar question, what neurologist, neurobiologist ask. How does the brain work? We don't know yet. How does an insect society work by self-organization? We don't know yet. But it is a true frontier to find out. It must be a cascade of signals, because it is not just random. There must be, as Ed said, a plan, but the plan is not in one individual end. The plan is this interactions of individuals, which follow a certain program we don't understand yet.

FLATOW: Talking with Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson, authors of "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies." It's one biology book that you should get. This is a great one for, I think, the holiday season. It's terrific - terrific book. We're going to have to talk a short break. We are going to talk more after the break with E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, so stay with us. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Also, we're twittering. Our address is @scifri, if you'd like to send us a question that way, or in Second Life, we have our island going there, and on the phone. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the new book "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies" with the authors Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We're also taking your questions on Twitter, @scifri is the address, and on Second Life. Let's talk about a little about insect communications and in particular, you right about the communication of honeybees. And I just thought that was so fascinating about how the dances of honeybees - and they do it all in the dark. How do they - Ed, how do they do - well, Bert, you want to talk about how do they do this?

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, this is the great discovery of Karl von Frisch, you know, the Nobel Laureate and my scientific grandfather, by the way. He discovered that the bees express the distance and the direction of a newly discovered food source by a dance. And as long as they can see the sun or the polarized light in the sun, they dance in direction of where the food source is. But of course, bees live in dark cavities and they have to translate this now onto a different reference system and they use gravity. So instead of, when they, say, dance 40 degree the right of the sun, they do this 40 degree right as a vertical line, the gravity line, in the nest. It was - no one ever disputed that these bees can dance and have the information. But it was disputed once in the United States by a colleague from California that the bees don't use this information. And it's still shows up. But by now, so much evidence - the trouble was, von Frisch couldn't do a dummy, could not have a dummy dance and give wrong information to see whether the bees fly there. But by now, many experiments have shown this and it's hard to understand why still some people doubt it. On the other hand, it's hard to understand why evolution should evolve such a complicated system, not to be used.

FLATOW: And if it's done in the dark, how do they communicate?

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, they do. They follow - the bees, the recruits, which follow the dancing bee, hold close antenna contact. And they perceive - and this is not quite clear yet, but it is probably multi-modal - they perceive the wind current created by the dancing bee, because she waggles with the abdomen and she produces a sound, a vibrating sound, which is transmitted through the comb and perceived by the follow bees in the legs. They have very, very sensitive vibration organs in their legs. So this is most likely the perception. We don't know yet.

But, what was recently discovered, no one knew - it was very clear how they indicate direction - but no one knew how they measure distance. How do they know how far they flew? And there was a great discovery by Harold Esch from Notre Dame. He discovered, the bees which fly out to the food source register and measure the optical flow, how fast the lantern posts - it's like you driving in a car and measuring the distance you have driven on then frequency and the fastness lantern posts pass by. This is now very well established and they showed it very convincingly. For example, the had a bee flying through a tunnel that had lots of stripes. And the bee flew only 30 meters through the tunnel, but this was for the bee 100 meters.

FLATOW: I see.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Because she - the optical flow…

FLATOW: She measured the flow of the object.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: That's right.

FLATOW: (unintelligible) lamppost.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: This was also the test that this information works. Because now they could look whether the recruits, who had not to fly through the tunnels - and they removed the tunnels - show up 100 meters away. And they did.

FLATOW: Interesting.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: And no bee was there before. So, this is why we covered it, because it was in the last couple of years. My view, a beautiful piece of work.

FLATOW: And Dr. Wilson, you talk about similar work with the ants, actually. They measure how many steps they take and you put them on stilts to prove that?

Dr. WILSON: Ah yes, we didn't, but some very genius experimenters did. You can put the ants up on stilts by adding a very light filament to their legs and, you know, so they're now walking farther off the ground, so that when they take a stride, they think they're walking a much shorter distance than they actually are. And conversely, you can trim a little part of the leg off - ants don't notice those things the way we do, incidentally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WILSON: And sure enough, the ants would think that they had gone much farther than they had actually gone. So, that's one way of dealing with how ants perceive distance.

FLATOW: It seems like you need not...

Dr. WILSON: Yeah, that's right. I should add, we're talking now about ants...


Dr. WILSON: …on the ground and ants that cannot follow trails, but actually are a kind of desert ant that orients entirely by visual signs.

FLATOW: Because you do talk about the ants that use - they lay down a scent trail.

Dr. WILSON: When they lay down a trail, there's not a lot of problem in measuring distance.

FLATOW: And you talk about the collectiveness of the ants. So many ants go back and forth, eventually one finds the shortest trail and they all...

Dr. WILSON: That also happens, yeah.

FLATOW: They follow that shortest trail. I would think that to be a successful scientist here, you need two things - you need a lot of things, but one is great patience and if you're going to put ants on stilts, you've got to have some great patience to do that. And you've - and not only that, you have to have, as you say, some genius in figuring out how to measure these things.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: You have to love your ants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WILSON: I think - I'm glad you said that, Bert.

FLATOW: You have to love your ants.


Dr. WILSON: When you love the subject and you take a group of organisms like the ants or fruit flies or even those wiggly inconspicuous little round worms, Caenorhabditis elegans, you must have an intense interest in them, which is emotional, in part. And you - that's why we use this expression - beauty, elegance - and it's fascination with that and the endless depth of it that's been achieved by millions of years of evolution that compels the naturalistic scientist - the one who wants to study the full array of adaptations that created that - of that instinct. You want to know it all.

FLATOW: And when did you develop - how did you know when you had that? When did you develop that you love - or know that you loved the ants?

Dr. WILSON: Well, there's a photograph taken of Bert Holldobler at the age of 13, in Germany, looking in to a butterfly net as part of his fascination with insects. And there's a strangely similar photograph of me - the same age - in Mobile, Alabama, holding a butterfly net, looking into it. And I think that was about the time that Bert and I really were on our way into studying, not just insects, but we were also at that time already developing a special interest in ants.

FLATOW: Mm hm. And when did you first meet and decide that you…

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, we - you know, these photographs and so forth always were interesting. I am a Bavarian, so I stand there with my lederhosen and Ed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Being a Southerner from Alabama, has his blue jeans. We met many, many years later at Harvard. I was a visiting scholar in '69 to '71...

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: …and met this pleasant gentleman and he was my host, but I never thought, you know, I will come back. I returned to Germany, took a professorship, and then it happened. I came back '73 to the faculty of Harvard and we then over the years developed this friendship. You know, you have to like each other when you write "The Ants."

Dr. WILSON: You both have to be happy about it.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Yeah, because "The ants" is such a torturous work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: You really have to like each other to go through this torture. And we sometimes wonder how we ever did it, but it was just - this continues, us sitting together having a lunch talking and developing these thoughts. And this friendship, now - we know each other 40 years now - became more and more intense and, well, this is the next product of this friendship, you know, "The Superorganism."

FLATOW: And when did you decide, Ed - going back to the 1970s when your book, "Sociobiology," came out, it caused quite a commotion. We've talked about this being - and I remember being at the meeting with you in the '70s...


FLATOW: …where you got water dumped on your head as a speaker for daring to have these thoughts about genetics and sociology.


FLATOW: What moved you to move from the ant colonies to make that leap?

Dr. WILSON: Well, this was a side-project of mine - excuse me a moment...

(Soundbite of coughing)

Dr. WILSON: Pardon me. This was a side-project of mine, which was to try to synthesize and cover everything known about all social behavior and all kinds of animals and to put it on the foundation of another discipline, which was population biology. And when I did that, I covered the social insects, of course, and a number of other social organisms, and all that was safe. But at the time, I naively said, well, I've got to include humans. We're social.

And I started then extending some of the basic principles and suggesting that there was such a thing as a genetic human nature and that this is what real held us together and made us happy and made us collegial and work and sacrifice together. And that didn't go over very well with a lot of people at the time, because the blank slate model of the brain that, you know, everything in human behavior is based on learning and on the accidents of cultural evolution...

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. WILSON: That was the dominant paradigm. So, I ran into trouble and, well, you know, I think something came out of the fight.

FLATOW: Are you still feeling any repercussions today?

Dr. WILSON: No. This is - I don't want to sound...

FLATOW: Have you made...

Dr. WILSON: Overly confident, but I think long ago that debate was settled. There is a genetic human nature.

FLATOW: Is there still bad blood, though?

Dr. WILSON: No, I don't think so.

FLATOW: I mean, some of the people who you might've - who have offended you and you had to stick up for yourself, is there still any bad blood?

Dr. WILSON: Not on my part.

FLATOW: No? 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Kevin in St. Augustine, Florida. Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. I think you have the best program on public radio news. I really enjoy it. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Thank you.

KEVIN: Your guests are talking about a superorganism acting like a single organism and that it must work through a cascade of events, but I'm wondering if there's any - do they have any evidence of an instantaneous shared awareness, of some kind of group mind or collective mind?

FLATOW: Ed? Bert? Good question. I'm sure that's on the mind of everybody listening.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Very good question, indeed. And I wished I have a clearer answer to that. It is very difficult to talk about a mind in ants, although, I must say I don't doubt it. We have no proof of that. We cannot quantitatively measure what ants - but one thing is common in the ants - they have - they are very tightly connected by chemical means and each superorganism, each colony, each member recognizes each other by chemical means to be a member of this society. And they fiercely discriminate against other societies of the same species, which have a different chemical uniform. So, here is a - but interestingly, these signals are learned. The ant is not born with a knowledge of their genetic relatedness.

This is, once they are enclosing and all young adults in the first eight days, they learn the colony odor and they adopt the colony odor. Now, it's too complicated to say where they - now explain where the colony odor comes from, but unfortunately, and this is true, we have to just face it - it was denied long in the '70s - wherever you find social systems in nature, that they evolved, you find also the discrimination against members of other social systems of the same species. The xenophobia, unfortunately, we humans are not free from that. In Stone Age, it was adaptive. Groups had to compete for limited resources. We have means of having group recognition - accents, dress, and so on. It's also learned.

Now, I immediately want to stress, citing David Hume, what is does not justify the (unintelligible). We have a good brain and we should very early educate our children that diversity is in. However, we shouldn't get rid entirely of xenophobia, we may not enjoy a football game. You enjoy only a football game by taking sides and this is - but in the ants - of course, they are, the ultimate example of discrimination against members of...

FLATOW: They are.

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Other societies.

FLATOW: That's interesting. Do you - I only have about less than a minute left - do you find that people try to extend the analogy too far into humans when you talk about insects?

Dr. WILSON: We use to, Ira. But I think that our understanding of animal behavior, including insect behavior, and, as we've just seen nicely illustrated in the studies of the spread of happiness in humans, this has become so sophisticated that we can do better than just making analogies from one to the other.

FLATOW: What's - next project between the two of you? We got another book in the works? Idea in the works?

Dr. HOLLDOBLER: Well, we see a lot of each other. We don't have anything - he's out at Arizona and I like to go out there and I hope to more to see ants, because they're active all year round. And Cambridge, Massachusetts has a distinctive dearth of ants. So, I think that alone will bring us together in the future.

FLATOW: I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Talking with Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson, authors of "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies," a beautiful, as well as beautifully written, book and I highly recommend it for holiday. Thank you (unintelligible) both for coming in to New York and taking time to be with us today. That's about all the time we have for this hour and for this week. Greg Smith composed our theme music. And we had help today, of course, as always, from NPR librarian Key Maleski.

If you'd like to send us mail the classic way - yeah, we still like to get those letters - Science Friday, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 10036. And you reach on our website, at sciencefriday.com and we're pogging - pogging? - we're blogging and podcasting and twittering and any other thing that we can think of of social networking, we're going to try to do it. And we have our video pick of the week. Flora's got the video pick of the week up there - X-ray photographs, really interesting x-ray photographs up there on our website today at sciencefriday.com. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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